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The Familiars of Zero
By Corvus no Genmu
What makes a monster?
Is it something seen? Those bloodied jaws with ivory fangs biting down upon naked flesh and swallowing bone whole of the young and the old? Those thick and blackened claws tearing into the hearts of stone and ripping thickly bound steel asunder with a single swipe of a massive paw? Or is it those eyes? Those godforsaken eyes that shine with promises of pain of death, murder of heart, and the destruction of one's very soul?
What makes a demon?
Is it something unseen? The mind that concocts the nightmarish horrors that torture the body of the poor victims played with like puppets on strings? The heart that delights in the pains and agonies of innocent souls and revels in their shrieking pleads for mercy, their tears of despair, and their shattered hopes? The soul, that blackened pit, from whence no light may shine or enter, where ideals such as mercy and forgiveness are the thing of figments and imaginings, never to be exercised or to be utilized?
What separates them?
The monster is a beast—a creature the likes of which vary upon the telling but there can be no mistake that it is a horrendous sight to behold. The demon is everyone and no one; it is the man smiling welcome in the dark, the woman sitting idly by beneath reddened light, or it very well could be a monster on the outside as it is on the inside. The monster is unwanted and undesired, whose demise is sought swiftly and, if possible, with extreme prejudice. The demon is welcomed or unnoticed, shackled or running rampant as it pleases with few being both able and willing to put an end to its horrors.
What are they together?
Don't you know?
I'll tell you.
They are hellish nightmares. They are untold agonies. They are wanton destruction.
He… is here and he is listening.
Dear mortal child… You know not what you do…
"I beg of you…"
The powers you meddle with so carelessly… The infernal eyes that you draw to look upon you…
"My servant who lives somewhere in the universe!"
There can be no escape from this fate… No chance for redemption for what is to come…
"Oh sacred, beautiful and strong familiar spirit!"
It's coming and all the world will know that is you who is to blame…
"I desire and here I plead from my heart!"
God have mercy upon your soul…
"Answer to my guidance!"
For he is coming for you, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière…
They had expected fire. They had expected a roar. They had expected pain. But the students of Tristain's Academy of Magic could never have expected the magnitude from which it came nor how it had begun firstly with the unexpected. Upon the end of her strange incantation, there was no follow-up of the usual explosion of smoke, sound, and force that many had presumed. No, in the instant between one breath and the next, there came to be a mirror standing before the Zero. A mirror the likes of which was only half as tall as the central tower of the void though just as wide though perhaps the name of mirror was not correctly said of this strange apparition.
For though there was no denying that its form and function was that of a mirror, the glass did not reveal the confused gazes of the students and familiars gathered behind Louise or the grounds of the academy. No, there was a forest reflected within the walls of the glass, a forest whose grass glistened like ice and whose trees hung heavily with leaves red as blood that shone all the more beneath the pale light of a single, ivory moon.
Suddenly, the leaves started to tremble and quake with increasing intensity before the trees themselves began to sway and crumble as something monstrous stalked through the wood. Twin orbs of amethyst light shone in the blackness, low to the earth and scanning through the roots of the trees before sharply turning to the mirror. The hellish eyes, for that was what they were, rose high into the air until they hovered above the canopy line. Beneath the faint glow of those infernal orbs, jaws opened wide as the recesses of a reptilian throat began to shine with a discolored flame of matching hue.
The fire reached the mirror and there came a flash of such intensity that it was almost blinding though this in itself paled in comparison to the hellion roar which resounded throughout the grounds like thunder. Violet flames made the grass whither and die before the dirt beneath crusted into ancient dust beneath the draconian claws of the monster that now occupied the space where once a harmless but extraordinary mirror once presided.
It was a reptilian beast from short snout to serpentine tail, whose hardened scales were black as ink with an underbelly of sickly yellow outlined in tattoos of red. Spikes long and thin as swords pierced out from the neck and arms. Yet these were but kitchen knives compared to the quartet of bones that jutted out from the back of the beast like the skeletal remains of wings carved as serrated blades. A pair of horns curved backwards from the sides of its head, just behind its toothy jaws, and like the remains of its wings was carved into sharpened blades of bone. It stood on all fours with hellish eyes glaring at the crowd before they settled upon one person in particular and widened first in surprise before they narrowed into thin, angry slits.
"Miss Vallière…" warned Professor Colbert a moment too late.
The demonic monstrosity's mouth opened in a hellion roar that preceded the rush of amethyst flames exploding forth between ivory fangs. The students screamed and scattered save for she who would have been engulfed by the flames had Professor Colbert not intervened with a timely levitation spell that drew her to his side in an instant. That did little to deter the beast from its sudden rampage as it turned its head to unleash another torrential blast when a sudden explosion beside its head sent it reeling back with a horrendous scream of surprised rage. It snarled and turned sharply to the one who dared to interfere.
Louise stood, her wand upraised, her eyes wide with the shock of her instinctive spell casting and the horror of seeing those infernal orbs now focused upon her.
"Miss Vallière! Finish the contract before I am forced to put this creature down!"
Oh, Jean Colbert…
Why did you have to say that?
Quicker than lightning, the beast lunged not for the girl whom had dared to strike it but at the man whom dared to presume himself its better. The tail, easily over twice as long as the beast itself, struck true and though it was pure luck that Colbert wasn't skewered by one of the many blade-like spikes adorning the appendage, that did not save him from having his spine snapped like a twig. The hellion beast snorted a puff of discolored smoke and set its sights once more to the one whom dared to—
"Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers; grant your blessings upon this being, and make it my familiar!"
The demonic monstrosity's eyes widened as magic, pure and raw as it had once been at the End of the Beginning, flared in the air between it and the child. The energies convulsed unseen by human eyes, twisting and shaping into a shackle and chain that slammed tightly upon the beast's right forelimb, the end of the chain piercing into the heart of the girl who collapsed to her knees with a pained gasp. The nightmarish creature snarled deeply at the magic burned upon the flesh of its right forepaw before its infernal eyes snapped to the girl, mouth opening wide to swallow her whole when it blinked. Its mouth closed slowly as it regarded the girl for a long moment in silence before abruptly breaking it with another hellish bugling cry that made her flinch. Yet she remained on her feet and her grip on her wand only tightened in her fist.
Fangs pulled back in a derisive sneer but the demonic beast lowered its great, horned head down in an animalistic bow to its new master.
"You are my Alice." The hellion beast spoke gravely. His voice had a strange echoing effect as though he were speaking in two distinctive voices. One young as a child who ran free as the wind and nearly twice as wild and the other an old man lying prostrate upon his deathbed. "I am your Jabberwock."
The Jabberwock was not a pleasant creature.
Not too entirely unexpected really considering the manner in which he had arrived. Despite the clear intelligence that he had displayed in speaking to Louise, no other had heard its voice. To all other ears they had heard a thick sound that was a strange amalgam of irritated bleating, harsh murmuring, and a guttural warbling. Thus, despite her convictions that the beast was intelligent and very sorry for his actions, it was rather difficult to find sincerity in the young girl's words as the monster's teeth gleamed maliciously as Professor Colbert was taken away by the medical mages on staff at the academy. The glares that Louise shot it after its supposedly spoken sorrows did not help matters.
The students were rightly cautious of it, fearing that the victim they had delighted in tormenting for the past two years had been armed with a beast whose leash was far too outreaching to their liking. Those who had been the most prominent in the daily tortures of words walked as though the ground were composed of shattered glass for though the demonic creature was not always present at Louise's side, they felt the heat of his gaze upon them regardless.
The younger students, those who knew of Louise by whispered reputation but had not the gall to praise or defile her name with their words, merely saw him as a fantastically horrific monstrosity of a beast and nothing more. The older students, those who saw themselves above the pettiness of their younger peers, changed their neutrality to blatant if not demeaning respect to she who summoned a beast who dwarfed all others that had ever come before it, including their own. The familiars of the students behaved far differently than their masters though this differed by the beast in question.
Those of the mundane, the ordinary beasts who elemental alignment was recognized only by their natural environments treated the Jabberwock like a predator whose hunger was satiated and were cautiously awaiting the first grumbling growl of hunger. Those who were of magic in blood if not in body and possessing of an intelligence that was not full sapience were almost reverent of the Jabberwock, being so to show some sign of respect whenever his infernal eyes fell upon them before being allow to move once more when the devilish gaze moved elsewhere. Yet it was a few, a very precious few, amongst the familiars who were as respectful as they were fearful of the Jabberwock and whom, if such eccentric thoughts could be believed, to hold actual conversations with the monster.
The staff of the academy, they who held not a drop of magic to their blood or name, feared the beast more than Louise's prior tormentors. For these folk had no means of defense from the Jabberwock's wrath by obscenely destructive spell or fanatically loyal familiar. It was only because this fear that they even approached the Jabberwock at all for though they thought the beast a terror when it was angry, they dared not imagine his wrath when he became hungry. Surprisingly, he did not immediately devour the first maid who came up to him with quivering voice and tear filled eyes with an apple held outstretched on a trembling hand. The Jabberwock merely stared at the offered fruit for a moment before an impossibly long tongue lashed out and slathered the apple up whilst covering the maid's arm in slobber. The maid had squealed in fright but had not run whilst the beast was distracted with his tasting the strangely bizarre thing known simply as an apple.
It was too bad really. For if she had run, she might have been sparred.
For though most immortal eyes were drawn to those who ran from them, the Jabberwock did not share in the sentiment. No, too many things had run from him throughout the entirety of his existence and those that didn't were one of three things. Alice, Hatter, or Chess Piece. In his tongue, he knew them by these differing names but to those of a human intellect they were as thus: Master, Ally, or Enemy.
As her apple had yet to poison him and he had recalled seeing her obey the words of his Alice, this maid could only be his Alice's Hatter and as such, an ally of the Suit.
So no, Siesta of Tarbes did not die this day nor was she ever to be harmed by the Jabberwock. He believer her to be claimed by his Alice and with his utterance of this belief it became fact. For there is a kind of magic in the voice of creatures like that of the Jabberwock whose tongue shaped the world around them with every spoken word. It was a subtle thing that no one but an outsider could notice. The slow change in routine in her daily life until Siesta was all but the handmaid of Louise in name. It would not be some time yet in the future before she would enact vengeance in the name of her mistress by way of poisoning several students' drinks. Not enough to kill them on the first sip mind you but just enough to make them regret ever earning the attentions of a Hatter descended from a line of shinobi…
More than one however…
Well, at least neither her Alice nor her Alice's Jabberwock could be blamed could they?
The Exhibition of Familiars had started out well enough. A few good shows amongst the more mundane of familiars buried beneath the spectacular performances of those whose species were of magic by blood or by practice. The average norm that was the standard of the yearly showing for nigh three centuries with little cause for concern towards a rampant familiar turning wild in the midst of an unprepared crowd. So many years had passed since that dreadful event that no one was alive to remember it and those records that described it so perfectly were buried beneath newer tomes in the vast shelves of the academy library. Had Fouquet read the texts for herself or had even listened to the sinking feeling in her gut, she might have survived the ordeal intact.
As it was, almost within the same instant of her mountain golem's assault upon the Void Tower, the Jabberwock loosed a roar the likes of which could kill whole scores of lesser men.
As it was, only a fourth of the student body died from the shock.
Fouquet's instincts screamed for her to move and move she did by way of summoning a shield of stone around herself and just in time too. The Jabberwock came charging onto the scene with murder gleaming in his infernal eyes and purple colored flames licking hungrily upon his jaws. He took one glance at the mountain golem before he unleashed the fury of his flames upon it and Fouquet laughed from the safety of her earthen armor. She had thought herself safe, thinking that the worst the draconic monstrosity could do was render the hardy mountain stone into molten slag, only aiding to its tremendous potential for destruction.
But something was wrong.
The flames did not burn upon the rocks of her golem. They spread across the golem like a cancerous tide and everywhere the fire touched, the stone crumbled to dust. Fouquet had only enough time for her eyes to widen with horror as the armored wall, which was supposed to be capable of withstanding even a blast from the Heavy Wind herself, crusted away. The flames seemed almost to pause, to savor in her fear, before they were upon her like a pack of hungry dogs.
Only then did she truly begin to learn the meaning of agony.
The flames burned her not as actual fire could but several thousand times worse. For in those four minutes that she burned like a wicker, time flew to such an extreme that it was misfortune that spared Fouquet from dying. Misfortune in that she had angered the Jabberwock and rather than see her crumble to dust as her golem had, he would see her age and suffer life as an old crone of a witch.
That was precisely all that was left of the former noblewoman when the Jabberwock ceased the torrent of flames and watched with sneering satisfaction as Fouquet stumbled forward on the aged patch of earth, hair white as snow and longer than the very tower she tried to break and her skin hanging in wrinkled sheets upon her creaking bones. Four minutes ago, she was a woman barely into her thirties.
Now she was a crone four decades passed her prime.
Viscount Wardes was a fool in too many ways to count. He had a teacher whom respected him amidst the small handful she had ever taught, had a fiancée whom loved him before all others whom she had ever known, and a princess whom favored him above all others of his station. Yet he threw this all away and for what? Power? Glory? In the end, what did it matter? Be he victorious or not, his name would forever be synonymous with countless others whom betrayed those closest to them with no remorse. Still… Wardes did achieve at least fame for one thing should history allow the uncovering of what truly occurred.
For in the very day that Wardes betrayed, Albion burned and fell from the heavens.
It was only by the nature of the bond between them that the Jabberwock was made aware of the spell cast upon Louise, his Alice. Had he been unable to feel the distortion of her mind as puppet strings were strung tightly upon her, he would have never questioned the changes that were wrought. The changed Louise would have granted him precisely what he wanted most and so he would have followed this apparition of character gladly. As it was, the Jabberwock was never aware that his dream of wreaking wanton havoc across the world had been all but in his grasp for his Alice had been assaulted and he, her Jabberwock, was not there to answer in kind.
This would not do.
A mirror's gate and an ironic twist of fate was what led the Jabberwock to appear in the vestiges of the church just as Prince Wales asked for objections to the holy matrimony of Viscount Wardes. Yet it was no such kindness as Fate or Destiny that drew the infernal gaze of the Jabberwock to meet the eyes of the viscount and see in them everything that was Wardes and all that he could be and that he had planned to do. The eyes are the windows of the soul and those with eyes like the Jabberwock burn through the lies and the deceit and see the truth of the mirror's reflection.
The man who would be king was in fact a knave.
The blazing eyes narrowed and in that instant, everything changed. What happened next, there was no one alive or in one particular case coherent, to tell though there were countless who saw the aftermath. It was impossible not to when the burning comet that had once been an entire country came flying overhead like a shard of the sun blazing furiously past the earth. The burning carcass of a once great nation flew across all of Halkeginia and when it at last crossed the borders…
All that was left was dust and debris.
Albion was gone and its people, every man, woman, and child, were dead as dreams.
They came to the school in droves. Men in robes, warriors in ironed steel, and at the fore, a child playing pretend at priesthood. The men in the robes murmured words of their holy scriptures, spells and incantations not meant for the tongues of the royalty, and kept their heads bowed. They clutched tightly upon their icons of a faith that was of their own making, a religion that was not meant to be but was so regardless.
The warriors stood in a tight lines behind and before them, swords upraised to point heavenward as runes mystical in make but zealot in design bade them to slay that which was a foul and embittered stain upon the sanctity of the world. The boy stood at the feet of the beast, his pet garbed in the body of a paladin, a White Knight in mask but Knave in his Heart, standing close to his side. The boy spoke of the unholy beast that stood so blatantly before him, that had destroyed a nation and its people by the command of its corrupted master and the animalistic army she drew under her sway.
Far from impressed or even afraid, the Jabberwock stood before the gates of the academy, its Palace of Four Suits, alone as it has always been and always would be. His master, his Alice, slept with her Hatter watching her like a true attendant with bloodied butcher knife firmly in hand and a smile on her face as would-be assassins lay bleeding and rotting on the floor. In fact, not a single student or teacher was to be seen, the halls of the academy reeking with a powerful miasma of the Hatter's concoctions putting the strong to sleep and the weak to death but for herself and those who awaited his summons.
Not that the Jabberwock would need to exercise his might as Vindálfr against he who would be Gandálfr.
Not even when the foolish Knave thought to presume that his was the one sword capable of slaying the Jabberwock. A feeling that the daemonic dragon quickly rectified by devouring limb and sword alike in one fell snap of biting jaws. The Knave had time enough to scream his agonies before the rest of him was snapped up in a frenzied hunger that struck the Jabberwock deep in its belly.
Magic flared as the Bishops released their spells fully upon him, the Knights following with elemental force unleashed from the tips of their swords. The resulting explosion could be seen from miles around and heard twice as far as the thunderous crashing of a felled god.
Yet not such thing had occurred as the smoke cleared and the White King saw a nightmare given form. By whatever properties that had made the Jabberwock immortal to any sword but one, the sword that he had so spitefully swallowed still possessed within its blade the power to absorb any and all magic sent its way and unleash it back into the world with equal, and sometimes even greater, force. Such was what had occurred when the contingent had unleashed their power upon the hellion beast but rather than be destroyed from the inside out, something far worse had occurred.
The magic that should have felled the Jabberwock had instead strengthened it to such a degree that there was no comparison to what he had been to what it had become. If before he was a hellion beast, a true demon of a dragon, than what it had become was a monstrous atrocity of hellfire and earthen steel. Scaly spines had been hardened into molten steel inlaid with rivulets of gold. The once bony protrusions that been the remains of wings had been reborn as wings of swords and twisted above in a cruel mockery of a demon's own inverted wings. Upon its head was a new set of horns that curled forward as swords upon its brow, but worst of all were its eyes. No longer were there a pair of infernal orbs but a quartet forever burning in literal flames within its abominable skull of a head.
Chronal flames coursed from its jaws with every breath it took, the very air aging by scores of centuries and changing innocent microbes into virulent diseases. Those not present before the changed Jabberwock were doomed for death though they would never know that this was the moment of their damnation. The diseases rode the air in a virulent swarm whose spreading could not be contained for how infectious they had become. By breath, by drink, by food, or by the slightest touch, they spread as a plague the likes of which the world had never seen nor was truly prepared to deal with. Yet it would not be this disease that would kill them in the end.
Not in the beginning, when the last of magic were sucked dry and not even the weakest and simplest of spells was an impossible dream. Never in the middle, when the nobility lost their ancient foothold as a global revolution swept across the earth. When mundane man, ancient elf, and murderous orc rose against they whom had once been their suppressors with steel in hand and blood in their eyes. It would be in the end. Yes, in the end, when his Alice's patience would reach its end and she allowed the Queen he knew resided within her Heart out to play through him. When he would be set loose upon the world and burn it all to dust and do as all monsters are want to do.
But such thoughts were for another tomorrow.
Today had far more pertinent pests to deal with.
Until the next summoning...